Chicago Bulls Can't Afford to Repeat History in 2010 Free Agent Market
When one hears the idiom "You don't know what you've got until it's gone," it is understandable that most people's minds will undoubtedly shift to high school year book quotations, cheesy pop songs, or sappy Facebook updates.
However, despite the brutalization this phrase has taken at the hands of our popular culture, it still succinctly embodies one of the most unavoidable and pervasive tragedies in human existence: no matter how hard anybody tries, it is impossible to to truly quantify how much value a certain person, place, or experience holds to them until they have been denied access to the enjoyment of that pleasure.
When you think about it, it really is an insidious characteristic for any being to have, the razor-sharp ability to fully perceive value in that which we don't have and the complete inability to fully value that which we do.
One could even argue that it is the most significant psychological obstacle most people have on their road to personal happiness, as the feeling of regret over that we have lost constantly threatens to obscure taking pleasure in that which is in front of us.
Younger siblings who have had their older brother or sister finally move away to college know this feeling.
Anybody who has ever watched their cellular phone do it's best Michael Phelps impression in a bathroom toilet knows this feeling (and I mean dropping it, in not have the battery start smoking uncontrollably in your pocket while in the bathroom).
Anybody who has had their favorite TV show cancelled (John from Cincinnati excluded) or seen their favorite band break up knows this feeling.
And boy, don't Chicago Bulls fans know this feeling.
People really don't consider us Bulls fans as tortured as we all feel after the unbelievable ride Michael Jordan gave us in the 90's.
We all had a basic understanding that the league had never seen anything like Michael Jordan. We all understood that it wasn't normal to win three championships in a row, and then do it again two years later.
We all understood the storybook elbow jumper that secured Jordan's sixth championship in eight years was both an exclamation point and the last period in the final chapter of MJ's, Scottie Pippen's, and Phil Jackson's time in Chicago.
You see, rumors had been swirling all season that the "Two Jerries" (then-Bulls GM Jerry Krause and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf) had more than likely already settled on the path of heresy and blasphemy and were not going to retain the services of the closest thing the NBA has ever seen to an immortal being.
Therefore, most fans entered the 1998 playoffs knowing that this would more than likely be the last time we would bear witness to the unrivaled greatness we had become so accustomed to over the previous 10 years.
If Jordan was a basketball god, his last shot was as appropriately and dramatically devastating as the last thunderbolt ever thrown by Zeus, incinerating the hopes and dreams of the Utah Jazz in a maelstrom of horror, despondency, and emotional pain as the rest of us mortals looked on in awe at his seemingly divine abilities.
As we all know, that storybook elbow jumper descended silently through the rim like a disgraced angel banished from the heavens by God himself.
Bulls fans everywhere erupted to revel in the joy of both a sixth championship in eight years and the epic ending which secured that championship.
In the back of our minds, we thought we understood just what we were about to lose when the Two Jerries let MJ and Co. walk away without so much as a "Don't let the door hit you in the arse on the way out."
But did we truly know? Absolutely not.
We couldn't, because we are human and it was impossible for us to truly understand what life was going to be like in the post-Jordan era until the Jerries let Michael, Scottie, and Phil all walk in the interests of freeing up cap room for when the "famed" free agent class of 2000 hit the markets two seasons later.
In 2000, the likes of Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, and Tim Duncan were poised to hit the free agent market, and the Bulls desperately wanted to be players in that market given that MJ and Scottie were entering their twilight years.
One problem: both Jordan and Pippen were asking for deals that would pay them both beyond 2000 and inking either of them to the deals they were requesting would guarantee the Bulls would miss out on the most promising free agent class in the recent history of the league.
Thus, Jerry Krause uttered his famous "players don't win championships, organizations do" quote/logic (that Jordan so appropriately ripped in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech) and decided it was time to look forward, not backward. Krause consequently refused to meet the term demands of either MJ or Scottie and refused to pay Phil Jackson as much money as he was (rightfully) asking for.
To quote The Usual Suspects, one of my favorite movies of all time, "And just like that, poof, he was gone."
The Bulls let the greatest player ever to pick up a basketball ride into the sunset of retirement along with his greatest adviser, Phil Jackson, and saw Scottie Pippen pack his bags for the Pacific Northwest and a stint with the Blazers.
All in the "hope" of signing a big name free agent and getting back to a championship level of basketball sooner than they could have if the Bulls had elected to pay Jordan and Pippen for a few more "farewell" seasons in Chicago.
It was widely understood that the next few seasons were going to be disastrous, as are most seasons in any sport after a dynasty is disbanded, and those seasons certainly lived up to the non-hype.
The Bulls went on to win 13 games in 1998-99 and 17 games in 1999-00.
It was a tough stretch as a fan, marked by names like Corey Benjamin, Andrew Lang, and Rusty LaRue, names that literally strike more terror and rage in my heart than the names of most serial killers.
But all this was in the hopes of signing a big name free agent to take a roster full of bench players back to the playoffs once again, so most of the Bulls faithful were willing to deal with two seasons of deplorable play if it meant a return to the level of winning we had grown so accustomed to.
Next thing we knew, Grant Hill was in a Magic uniform, Tim Duncan was firmly planted in San Antonio for another 6-8 years, and Tracy McGrady, despite a visit to Chicago and a Hedo Turkoglu-like 23rd hour guarantee that he was indeed signing with the Bulls, pulled the carpet out from both the organization and its fans and departed for the Magic with Hill.
(Ironic to note that the Magic pulled off what the Bulls were trying to do: they let Shaq and Penny walk in order to be players in the 2000 free agent market and landed two of the top three free agents. It wasn't their fault that there are pigeons with denser bones than Grant Hill).
And there were the Bulls, sitting on the sidelines with no Michael Jordan, no Scottie Pippen, no Phil Jackson, no marquee free agent to play along side recent Rookie of the Year Elton Brand, and absolutely zero pieces in place to be anything more than one of the worst teams ever assembled in the history of the league.
The ensuing seasons bring up so many repressed memories of disappointment and misery that I may or may not need to take a break, assume the fetal position on the floor, and suck my thumb every five to 10 minutes as I type the next few paragraphs, but its a story so full of ineptitude and bad karma that it needs to be told.
In 2001 the Bulls went 15-67 (last place in division).
In 2002, the Bulls went 21-61 after trading away former-ROY and double double machine Elton Brand (literally the only young talent on the entire roster) to the Clippers so that they could draft (gulp) Tyson Chandler with the second pick, and spend their fourth pick that same year on (gulp) Eddy Curry.
To summarize, the Bulls traded away the only young proven talent they had since a young MJ for a physically underdeveloped, unproven high school center while spending the other on an overweight, unproven high school center.
Funny how that didn't work out.
In 2003 the Bulls received another "bright spot" when they were able to draft college Player of the Year Jay Williams from Duke with the second overall pick.
Jay went on to record a triple double and win Rookie of the Year. He later moved on to shattering his body on a telephone pole in a motorcycle accident (because, in the grand scheme of things, doing a wheelie is infinitely cooler than being an award-winning NBA point guard). Did I mention he wasn't wearing a helmet, wasn't licenced to drive a motorcycle, and was even expressly forbidden to ride motorcycles in his contract?
Excuse me while I go ingest a battery acid smoothie.
We only won 30 games that year and Jay Williams never played another second in the NBA. Sweet life.
Inconsistent play from point guard Jamaal Crawford and big men Chandler and Curry led the Bulls to a 23-59 in 2004 before drafting Kirk Hinrich and making some savvy free agent signings in 2005 that finally allowed the Bulls to reach the playoffs again (only to lose to the Wizards) for the first time since MJ was in uniform.
So, to summarize, the Bulls chose to sacrifice present wins and quality players in the short run to free up cap space for a chance to sign a marquee free agent in a loaded free agent class.
Sound like a familiar situation?
Enough has been made of how star studded the upcoming free agent class of 2010 is, with the likes of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh all open to the possibilities of changing teams when the season wraps up.
Two summers ago, to prepare for this upcoming free agent bonanza, the Bulls chose to sign the inexperienced Vinny Del Negro instead of paying for Mike D'Antoni or another big name head coach.
They then chose to let perennial leading scorer Ben Gordon go in free agency without even bothering to make an offer. (Personal note: I couldn't have supported this more, but it still doesn't change the fact that they let the leading scorer for the past few seasons walk without an offer.)
Finally, at this season's trading deadline, the Bulls shipped off Tyrus Thomas and John Salmons (two key components in that phenomenal opening round series versus the Celtics last season as well as our two most effective players off the bench this year) to the division rival Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for an amalgamation of expiring contracts and seemingly disinterested players who were going to show up for the pay check every night until they found their permanent home this offseason.
What has this led to in the short term? An exceedingly disappointing 2010 season in Chicago and more than likely another playoff-less season.
What has this gained us in the long term? The chance at a big time free agent.
If history is any indicator, the consequences that will result if the Bulls front office cannot deliver a marquee free agent this offseason could and probably will be devastating for the franchise, and, more importantly, the fanbase.
In 1998, the Bulls chose to release their leading scorer and key complimentary help while trying to find a cheap head coach for the shot at a marquee free agent in 2000. The failed to land a single notable free agent. What came in the six seasons following that free agency air ball?
Six straight losing seasons (five of which the Bulls failed to exceed 23 wins), five last place division finishes, zero playoff appearances, and a plethora of Bulls fans with their souls shattered.
That is six years of losing, and losing on an unacceptable level. I was 14 in 1998. I didn't see the Cowboys in the playoffs again until I was 20. I went through high school and my freshman year of college without the Bulls winning more than 30 games (and often less than 20).
Suffice it to say, that period of misery undeniably demonstrated how much I took the Michael Jordan era and the constant winning and success that accompanied it for granted.
Now, over a decade later, the Chicago Bulls seem to be repeating the strategy of the 1998 Bulls all over again.
Over the past 18-24 months the Bulls have released their leading scorer, cut key complimentary help, and found a cheap coach instead of paying for a big name.
Is releasing Ben Gordon, trading Salmons/Thomas, and firing Scott Skiles akin to losing Jordan, Pippen, and Phil Jackson? Absolutely not.
But the logic behind the plan is disturbingly similar.
If the Bulls front office can't bring home the bacon and land a marquee free agent like Dwayne Wade or Chris Bosh, the next 5-6 seasons for the Bulls will be above average at best, and a train wreck at worst (leading to the nightmare scenario of Derrick Rose departing the Bulls for a contender after his rookie contract is up).
The Bulls have made certain decisions over the last two seasons based solely on the desire to free up enough cash to land LeBron, Dwayne Wade, or Chris Bosh this offseason just like the moves they made in 1998 to free up enough cash space to try to land T-Mac, Duncan, or Grant Hill in the 2000 offseason.
One should take note (lord knows I have) that, in 2000, of the big three free agents, one stayed with his current team, and the other two went to play together in Florida.
Know that I'm afraid to type any more so feel free to finish connecting the dots on that one by yourself.
Of course there are other second-tier free agents to sign like A'mare Stoudamire, David Lee, Ray Allen, and Joe Johnson, and the Bulls would be lucky to sign any combination those free agents if all the Big Three fall through.
But if the front office comes up just as empty-handed this offseason as it did in 2000, the glory days of MJ and the "Three Peats" will seem even further and further removed while the Bulls devolve from a "storied franchise" to "a franchise that cashed in on Michael Jordan and never did anything else again."
The Bulls are an organization with six NBA championships. That puts them in the top five to six NBA franchises still in existence. However, it remains to be seen whether the Bulls will be as a traditionally successful organization like the Celtics or Lakers, or whether the 90's will be the Bulls' random decade of dominance like the Spurs in the last 10 years.
The Lakers and the Celtics both won championships in the 1980's. They both then won another within the next 20 years, and, for that and many other reasons, are considered two of the best franchises in the NBA.
The Bulls are 12-13 years past the Michael Jordan era.
If they hope to be remembered as a great franchise and not a franchise who got lucky with one great player, they need to deliver in free agency this year and deliver the Bulls' young core of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah a star that can take them to the next level and win some championships removed from the MJ era with.
Personally, I've experienced enough of "The Post-Jordan Era" to know exactly what the Bulls lost when Michael and his crew were run out of town by the front office, and I don't need anymore lessons in humility.
So here's to Dwayne Wade/LeBron James and Derrick Rose becoming the next Michael and Scottie, or to Chris Bosh and Rose becoming the next Kobe and Shaq. I've had enough losing to recognize just how privileged we were to root for a championship contender every year for a decade.
I'm tired of realizing what we lost, and all I want to do is go back to taking winning for granted again.
Just like everybody else does.
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